A Gentle Reminder About Governance…

I’ve taken too long of a break from writing, friends! Life and business sure have a way of taking over.  

I’m excited to be in the middle of launching a new education series for nonprofits with my friends over at the Academy for Grassroots Organizations. This new series will be called the Level Up Nonprofit Education Series. All workshops will be created and facilitated by yours truly, and while we’re targeting small and midsized nonprofits, there will surely be something for everyone. So, stay tuned and get ready for some excellent tips to take your nonprofit’s governance and management to the next level.  

Preparing these new workshops has forced me to take a fresh look at some of the fundamentals that I and many other nonprofit leaders take for granted. For example, I often notice that the words “governance” and “management” are used interchangeably. Yet, these terms couldn’t be more different in their meanings and applications. So today, I’d like to offer a quick reminder about governance and how it is distinct and separate from nonprofit management.  

OK, here goes: 

Governance is defined as: the act or process of governing or overseeing the control and direction of something1.  

Management is defined as: the judicious use of means to accomplish an end2.  

Taken at face value, governance and management are easy enough to distinguish. But on a day-to-day basis, when the nonprofit leader is focused on getting things done, often with limited resources, it’s really no surprise when lines get blurry.  

When it comes to the governance and management of a nonprofit organization, friends, it’s important that these two very different roles be treated as such. Equally importantly, we must ensure that the right people are involved in the roles that are most appropriate for them and encourage everyone to stay in their respective lanes.   

In short, management is for the executive director; governance is for the board.   

When we talk about governance in terms of “overseeing the direction of something”, the board of directors should be top of mind. It is the board’s role to create the organization’s vision, oversee the finances, and ensure that the business needs of the nonprofit are in order. Governance includes duties such as strategic & financial planning; policy setting; legal & fiscal oversight; and executive staff oversight.  

Governance is all about the high-level vision and oversight that a nonprofit needs to be successful. Governance is where the “what” of an organization gets defined and nurtured. It is NOT where programs get developed, nor is it where minor budget expenditures get approved or where volunteer management occurs. Governance is vision and oversight, and the rest – the “how”, the day-to-day, the implementation – is management. More on management another time.  

Even though board members shouldn’t be involved in the daily management of a nonprofit, their role is just as important to the organization’s overall success as the executive director, program manager, or volunteer. Governance can and should be active. What this means in practice is that board members should prepare for and actively participate in board meetings, understand the organization’s mission, pay attention to the finances, and serve as ambassadors in the broader community.   

There is a lot involved in nonprofit governance, friends…more than just showing up for the occasional meeting. Over the next several weeks, I’ll dive a little deeper into the main components of nonprofit governance. Check back for a quick refresher and I’ll be sure to share more information about the Level Up Nonprofit Education Series as it becomes available.  

Take it easy!